It’s a tough pill to swallow for any athlete when you’re playing in the biggest game of your life before even becoming a teenager.
When the Tunkhannock Little League softball team embarked on its run to a state title in 1977, each game played became the biggest contest any of the girls had ever played in before.
But even with those high stakes, the girls were more than up for the challenge, and brought home the first state championship in the history of Tunkhannock Little League 40 years ago this week.
“We never gave up,” Linda O’Hearn (now Hulslander) said. “We truly believed if we didn’t give up, good things would happen, and that sentiment carried on and really changed my life. I’ve summoned that many times throughout the years and it was a great experience to be able to have so young.
O’Hearn, along with Marsha Boice, made up a dominant one-two punch for Tunkhannock on the mound throughout the playoffs.
O’Hearn went the distance in a 13-run rout of Sayre to open the postseason, then battled on the rubber for Tunkhannock’s 11-9 victory over Canton in the District 15 championship game.
Susan Gurney, Karen Long, Cathy Baldo and Jill Nichols each contributed timely hits in the fifth to plate two runs and break the 9-9 tie en route to the win.
“The top of our lineup could always get a crappy hit and somehow get on base,” Long (now Passareli) said with a laugh. “Jill or Cathy or Marsha would get up there and whack the ball. Whenever they came up, the other kids quivered. We knew we always had to be ready to run.”
“There’s no question they were something special,” Tunkhannock manager Chris Strumski added in a previous interview with the Wyoming County Press Examiner. “After we played a few games, we realized they were not only talented; they were smart. They were all pretty good hitters – I never worried about scoring runs – and we had two great pitchers: Linda and Marsha.”
O’Hearn was the winning pitcher the following night in a 14-4 romp over District 17 champ Greenridge before Tunkhannock edged Newport 8-6 to move to the state semifinals against Newberry of Williamsport — what O’Hearn would call the biggest game of her life.
“That’s an easy one for me,” O’Hearn said through a smile. “That was the hardest and toughest game we ever played. It was about 90-some degrees, I ended up with heat rash all over my neck, and they had a great pitcher and great defense going up against us.”
“It was the game of games,” Strumski said. “It really was a classic."
While battling the heat and a defensive battle, O’Hearn recalled also having one particular battle at the plate.
“I remember they pinch hit a really tiny girl as a last ditch effort of sorts to get someone on base,” she said. “Chris called time out and said, ‘You know she’s not going to swing, right?’ It sounded like no problem, but it wasn’t an easy out.
What helped me all those years was that I was able to tune things out when I had to. I remember my father telling me that I would have to focus and get used to it, that it was just me and the catcher. Somehow, I was able to do that. In that particular game, that was the toughest I ever had to dig in on a ballfield. Even at 11-years-old, it’s one I’ll never forget.”
The win sent Tunkhannock to the state championship, though Mother Nature had other ideas, and the game was postponed twice from rain.
When Tunkhannock and Minersville finally took the field, it was Boice who twirled a masterpiece against an opponent which had averaged 18 runs a game in its previous three contests.
Boice held Minersville to just five hits and Tunkhannock won the game and its first state title, 5-1.
“It was an awesome time to be a kid on that team,” centerfielder Long said. “We were a big family and all worked together and came together — there was no competition. And when we won, we celebrated.”
Long recalled her fondest memory of that run coming on the way home from the state title game, when manager Strumski showed just how excited she was for the Tunkhannock team.
“All of the families carpooled home so we were following each other and had a long line of cars,” Long said. “We got stuck at a light, and Chris got out of her car and stood on top of it and starting waving our banner around and got all the cars blowing the horns. People probably thought we were nuts, but it was an awesome thing. We came home and fire trucks met us crossing the bridge for the start of a parade into town. It was just so much fun to be a part of that and have the community behind us.”
Indeed, one of the sentiments consistently echoed by the team as something they remember was the support from the small town of Tunkhannock.
Fans lined the stands for games and lined the streets for the parade, a tradition that continued almost four decades later when the Tunkhannock 8-10 softball team won the state title in 2016.
“It brought back a lot of memories to see that,” O’Hearn said. “The same thing happened when the Tunkhannock Area High School softball team played in the state championship at Penn State. In a way, that support helped put us at ease when we played.”
That support carried on from Little League to high school for O’Hearn, who was a member of Tunkhannock’s first softball team in 1980.
She also picked up the first win in school history, going the distance in a 9-8 victory over Bishop Hannon in the team’s debut.
Sue Gurney, who also played on the state championship team, led the Tunkhannock attack with three hits and scored the winning run.
Nancy Balint Kohl, another state title member who passed away in 2016, had two hits.
After high school, several of the 1977 teammates went on to compete together in the Tunkhannock Women’s Softball League for many years.
Now, O’Hearn spends her time in the stands instead of playing on the field and carrying that torch of community support, most recently cheering on her son, Conner Hulslander, who played on the Tunkhannock baseball team and graduated this past spring, She did the same for her older children, Erin Antosh and Michael Antosh.
O’Hearn, Class of ‘82, is currently the art teacher for kindergarten through fourth grade for Tunkhannock Area Elementary.
Long just celebrated her 35th class reunion for Tunkhannock High School (1983) this past weekend and will serve as an assistant coach for the varsity volleyball team in the fall.
Strumski recalled similar community support when reflecting back on the 1977 season after Tunkhannock Little League won the state championship last year.
“The thing I find so admirable about Tunkhannock and other smaller communities is that when one of their programs is doing well and travelling, the people always come,” she said. “ They aren’t necessarily even from Tunkhannock, but the people are unbelievably loyal, and it’s very heartwarming to see when there’s a large crowd there to support the kids. When the community is behind the program and travels to see them, there’s a certain excitement about it. It’s wonderful for those girls.”
Though she’s long since retired from jumping on car hoods, Strumski, now 72 years young, hopes to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Tunkhannock Little League milestone a decade from now.
The 1977 Tunkhannock Little League softball team consisted of Linda O’Hearn, Wanda Talcott, Karen Long, Becky Harding, Shirley Harvey, Susan Gurney, Nancy Balint, Cathy Baldo, Debbie Delmar, Felicia McClymont, Marsha Boice, Jill Nichols, Lisa Watkins and Kathy Kobylski, with Bill Sedwick as coach and Christine Strumski as manager.